Reclaiming Much Ado About Nothing for a Modern Audience

By: Tyler Battist

July 26, 2021

Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing successfully brings a refreshing and modern twist to the classic Shakespeare play. Leon’s adaptation is set in the near future with an all-Black cast, and begins with modern political imagery. Leonato’s home has a huge “Stacey Abrams 2020” banner, and the play is set in Georgia, where Stacy Abrams is one of the state’s most well known political figures. The protestor imagery as well as the civil war-like references are reflective to the current political climate and racial unrest in contemporary America.

Much of the plot and dialogue included in Leon’s adaptation is true to Shakespeare’s original. However, the futuristic twist makes it enjoyable and more relatable to a modern audience. This version of Much Ado About Nothing kept many of the same lines from the original play, which creates an interesting contrast when presented by an all-Black cast. While some overtly racist and nationalist lines were left out of the play, the cast managed to provide a unique, and often comedic, delivery of the old English language used in the original.

The intersection between misogyny and racism are at the forefront of Much Ado About Nothing. The main conflict of the plot centers on Brooks’s character’s virginity and how all women of Shakespeare’s time were meant to be chaste. When considering how Black women’s bodies have been treated in America historically, a lot of unpleasant things come to mind. When thinking back to times of slavery, we conjure images of back-breaking physical labor; sexual assaults at the hands of slave-owners; and Black women being forced to nurse white babies, often at the nutritional expense of their own children. In modern times, this hatred toward Black women’s bodies can be seen in the form of racist policies regarding their hair in military setting and throughout the world of sports; the hypersexualization forced upon Black women, is often combined with backlash about their body types or how they choose to dress; and numerous other more insidious ways as compared to historical times.

The play opens with Danielle Brooks performing Marvin Gaye’s of “What’s Going On?” which was written about protestors of the Vietnam War in the 60’s. The lyrics of the song signal to the inequalities and injustices in America, which become especially poignant when it’s melded with parts of “America the Beautiful”. Shortly thereafter, the soldiers enter the scene with Don Pedro, holding picket signs stating “I Am Human” and “Hate Is Not a Family Value” amongst others messages. This conjures images in the viewers’ minds of both Gaye’s time and our present day.  Today, policy brutality towards Black men, women, and children has steadily increased over the last several years, as has the traction and prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The silly tone of the play mixed with the seriousness of its subject matter leaves viewers intrigued and pleasantly unsure of how they should be feeling. This modern interpretation of Shakespeare goes to show that modern updates can make Shakespeare universally enjoyable and relatable for all people. I find Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing to be an amazing way to bring Shakespeare to a modern audience in a more digestible format than the original play.

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